You don't have to live in the Glam World of Science

Sep 22 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Over at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman Sweetscience put up a post titled "I've made a huge mistake" that includes:

Over time, I’ve been exposed more to the side of research I really detest – the cutthroat, competitive, nepotistic, money squandering, high-impact-chasing side of science. Or rather, scientists. I’m pretty sure I could play the game my way and maybe even change some things for the better, but I don’t even want to be a part of a world like that.

This follows on the heels of Jean-François Gariépy's post on leaving science (my responses here and here), where he talked about the "highly-competitive environment... [with] scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world",  scientists who do pretty much what Sweetscience says above.

I wrote  at length that my world isn't Gariépy's world. He was skeptical of my response, but that's his right and his perspective. I'm not going to try and persuade Sweetscience of anything. Her post is well-reasoned and she, as did Gariépy, is making a hard choice. The quote above comes from her third point, the first 2 (really 4) points are very much about who she is and what she wants. Her post differs from Gariépy's in that she believes she has made a mistake. I'm not sure it's her mistake, but I wish her well in moving on.

What strikes me is that I think, no, I know that it is possible to be in a different world. Not all parts of science are cutthroat. There are subdisciplines and labs that not competitive, nepotistic and glamour-chasing. There are mentors who believe in promoting, protecting, and cultivating their mentees. There are mentors who support not just students and postdocs, but junior faculty, not just the glamourous ones, but the solid ones doing good work in the trenches. And, it's not just one or two, here and there. There is a  reason the journal Cell gets lumped with Science/Nature. But there is lots of biology that is not cell biology, or molecular biology or optogenetics. There are whole fields where people are not pushed the way they are in the "cutting-edge" labs.

I do not deny that the exciting pathological world of glam-chasing exists. Its why I left MRU. It's why lots of folks I respected left my Old-MRU. But if one doesn't wish to live in that world, one doesn't have to. There is some choice in the matter. It's not always easy, and often it involves compromise. But how does that make it different from any other decision in life?  It's different only if you believe that that either the world owes you an R01 or that your snowflake-ness will mean you glide through the problems. And, hey, stop looking at that person at the other bench who, to your eyes, had a cakewalk through life. She's just making different decisions and choices than you.

Sweetscience seems to be making the right choice for her. But for the rest of you out there nodding your head in agreement with the assessment that it's a totally ugly world out there... there are alternatives, you just have to find them. As my grandmother said "if ya' lay down wit da' dawgs, ya' gonna git up with da fleas".

12 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    I agree with your position here.

  • odyssey says:

    I absolutely agree. I also inhabit a world that isn't the cut-throat glam-chasing one Sweetscience and Jean-François refer to. Is it competitive? Hell yeah. How can it not be in today's funding climate? But along with that has come a level of cooperation and support for others that did not exist in better funding times. In my subfield at least.

  • DrabDoc says:

    "There are subdisciplines and labs that not competitive, nepotistic and glamour-chasing."

    I agree, and this is great advice for a graduate student at the beginning of her training or even when looking for a first postdoc position. However, depending upon Sweetscience's (or anyone else's) discipline/subdiscipline and time already spent toiling therein, it may be a bit late to switch course. Hard to say without knowing specifics.

  • gmp says:

    I can't speak of the situation in the biomedical sciences, but I will chime in about the situation at my R1, physical sciences.

    In my college, each department has to formulate a strategic hiring initiative with clearly delineated areas for priority in hiring, and then the new positions are approved at the college level. You can bet your sweet behinds that the areas that are high priority for hiring are the hot areas, i.e., those perceived as having the most potential for raising money and for high-impact publications (which then go on to further help raise money).

    I agree that there are interesting fields where people are not cutthroat and where the potential for GlamPubz is lower. But it is pretty clear (to me, at least) that working in those fields seems to position one (despite technical brilliance or originality) as a second-class member of the scientific community, one whose area of study is a lower priority for disbursing federal funds and who is a lower priority for hiring, raises, etc. If people from glam-chasing fields think they have a hard time getting faculty jobs, they should ask how how hard it is for people from less prominent fields (the answer: really fuckin' hard).

  • sweetscience says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, potnia theron! As a matter of fact, I do work in a sub-field that is not so competitive or cutthroat, but I do still feel like I see and have to fight against some other negative aspects of the broader field like nepotism and glam-chasing, which are especially worrisome when applying for faculty positions (which of course aren't tailored for my sub-field). gmp comments on some of the importance of Glam for hiring. So I do feel like I can do the science and be happy in my little corner of the world, which is why I am still considering academic jobs that focus on teaching and mentorship in research, more than sexy science.

    And of course you rightly point out that my decision is based mostly on the personal points about my desires and abilities for my career and less on this point, but it's great to see the conversations about the different sides of science.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Where's PhysioDouche?

  • E rook says:

    My phd project and post doc project were in a dying sub field. Dying because technology and therapeutics in a different aspect of my disease of interest caused my sub disease to not matter any more. So when I was writing R01s, and doing pilot studies, I tried my damnedest to set myself apart and switch slightly ... to stick to the methods and area of biology that I know, but focus on a slightly different and more relevant problem. But there was this other lab who seemed to be two steps ahead of me. I would propose an experiment or make a prediction and try to do it myself, and lo and behold a few years later, this other lab did it and did it better than I was able to with my tools and circumstances. This happened with about 4 significant advances before i gave up (had to) and let them take it over. This hyper competitive part of science is the what Thomas Kuhn referred to as 'normal science.' We are working our butts off filling in the details of the models and existing theories. Sometimes using new technologies, but no new paradigms. So the person who can perform most efficiently (for whatever reason) is going to be successful. The currently existing paradigms in my field are really effing good, and there's a crap-ton of detail to be filled in. So whoever can throw together the experiments most efficiently to figure out the thread-counts and weave-patterns will win the funds to keep at it. I wish my former competitors nothing but the best, but it's a damned tough lesson to learn when one is trying to put down roots.

  • Anon says:

    "Not all parts of science are cutthroat. There are subdisciplines and labs that not competitive, nepotistic and glamour-chasing. There are mentors who believe in promoting, protecting, and cultivating their mentees."

    While I generally agree with the above sentiment -- yes, you absolutely can find a local oasis with support, encouragement, and mentorship -- that doesn't protect you from having to play the overall "academic game."

    The metrics we are judged by, such as number of publications, authorship order, grant funding, etc. cannot be avoided. It's in those, where even scientists in the best lab environments, tend to witness the darker side of the field and become discouraged.

  • babyattachmode says:

    This really depends on where you are too. In my homecountry, in order to get a position as an independent scientist (i.e. not a post-doc), you need to get a competitive fellowship first, for which you need high IF papers and such. I honestly don't see many options to not live in the Glam world in the current system here.

  • Blue sunset says:

    From the passage and the comments, it seems that people are talking about it from the perspective of a PI or someone who is very near to the start of PI-dom. I can only assume it gets easier the longer you can observe and gather information as an insider when it comes to signs and flags to look out for if you want to steer clear of glam-chasing cutthroat types of labs/PIs. For a grad student or a grad school applicant like myself, it seems insurmountable to see an alternative to glam-chasing/cutthroat/plain old exploitation, let alone finding that needle of modest, solid labs in sacks of hay: partly for lack of means and resources -- I don't suppose admins, current or previous students seem incentivized to inform me; also for the intangible nature of "glam-chasing" : is a publication record consisting mostly of SCN papers a red flag? Can where the research description on the lab webpage falls along the detailed-to-grandeur be a good indicator?

    Obviously it's good for you that you can see and have chosen an alternative that suits you, it seems to me that being able to see and seek that alternative is far from a given, sometimes not even a choice but a privilege.

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